Interview with Charlie Spencer, Executive Chairman of the Spencer Group
This month I travelled a little off our ‘English Midlands and Derwent Valley’ patch to visit the head office of C. Spencer Ltd at Humber Quays in Hull. Spencer’s is one of the companies on the Advanced Manufacturing Park just outside Sheffield and a project partner for Future Works. Welcomed into the executive suite of the Head Office, formerly home of Yorkshire Forward, we were soon within view of the scale model of their latest project ‘Energy Works’, the distinctive triangular profile of ‘The Deep’ submarium… beyond the dark wide River Humber stretched out to meet big pale skies.
Charlie Spencer explains that ‘Energy Works’ is a power plant that proposes to turn waste into energy. Through working on biomass with others over the past decade and developing mechanical and electrical engineering skills in house, they began to think about the possibility of developing a power station. Similar to what we had heard at Gripple, the initial phase was about thinking about what the best possible design would be, and being as ambitious as possible. Charlie explains that their aspiration was to be the greenest plant in Europe- and this could be achieved through using advanced gasification, energy recovery, and waste heat for anaerobic digestion. This type of process had not been achieved in the UK before. Once they understood the idea they could then begin to engage in the parameters and pragmatic concerns and opportunities.
In making their analysis of how they should proceed Charlie explained the team soon realised that advanced gasification attracted the highest subsidy, they could charge for waste collected and use waste heat used for anaerobic digestion. Financially the project seemed to be feasible. The project would utilise all the waste processed from 20-mile radius in Hull, reducing landfill and taking vehicles off the street. Bright graduates and contacts of their newly recruited senior power engineer worked together with long-term staff to enable the development of the networks and research required.
One of Charlie’s first steps was to speak to Friends of the Earth and a local pressure group (which had come about in response to a plan by another company to set up an incinerator on the site). Spencer’s laid plans before them to see what they all thought and Charlie reports that they were all very happy with the plans…starting from a position of scepticism to being positive about the impact on and contribution to the city. He states that the only exception was that Friends of the Earth didn’t like anaerobic digestion, believing that the 50000 tonnes of food waste required to power the plant should be composted… but Charlie tells me he would argue that composting releases the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere and that their proposals for the plant for instead turn this into energy that can be used by people living in Hull…
The next phase involved speaking to Hull City Planning Department about the location of an appropriate site. One was found close to a sub-station, and purchase negotiations commenced. The station had spare capacity to allow the projected 25 Megawatts of fuel to be exported to the grid. The £1 million of business rates that the built scheme will raise will go directly to the local government- usually such monies go to a central Government pot. This focus is important for the firm, who want to help support the local economy.
A series of consultations happened at the Spencer offices in the centre of Hull- including with Spencer’s own staff. Those staff members who hadn’t been part of the design team were also asked to contribute and comment on the project. Others invited included people living locally, councillors, campaign groups and interested others. Spencer’s realised that it was also important to go out onto sites to meet people and hired a ‘green bus’ operated by environmental charity to go to people and meet face-to-face… Charlie’s says this was mainly positive- but concerns were initially expressed about dust, rats, emissions… He realised that as a company they needed to give a more detailed response to people- it wasn’t good enough to say ‘there wont be much noise’- they needed to have the accurate and rigorous research to prove and quantify this. Although challenging, this research process enabled them to produce a better scheme and build relationships with those living close by.
Charlie’s account of the process of getting a power plant off the ground is as much about negotiating sites, land rights, and relationships as perfecting an engineering process and an idea for the future of energy. His account is of a distributed process involving many people and places.